My friend Jason Ching and I camera trapped the Washington cascades for an entire winter and the results were humbling: we got a domestic cat (we named her Dolores), one bobcat, and this mysterious furry beast, slightly out of focus.
I’m a fish guy, so it took me a little while to figure out that we’d gotten an American marten. Minus the ears, it reminded me of another mustelid that photobombed a grizzly bear set back in 2011: that one was a mink.
Fast forward to 2014; now I am nuts about small carnivores, particularly the weasel family. I’ve gotten a wide variety of them on my research trail cameras, even the apex weasel-beast herself:
While I’ve had luck with mustelids on trial cams, I’ve mostly gotten skunked (cheesy mustelid pun intended) when going for high quality portraits with my SLR rigs. The one exception has been my lucky encounters with one of the rarest of the weasels, the Pacific fisher.
This winter, I decided to revisit the weasel species that so thoroughly eluded Jason and I in Washington. I went about it a little more wisely this time. First, I picked the brains of fur trappers that I know in Alaska and read up on how folks target marten when they’re after their pelts rather than their portraits. Next, I talked to some local experts in Wyoming, Jake Goheen and Merav Ben-David, who study small carnivores. They tipped me off to the forest features that marten prefer (closed canopies with coarse woody debris), and even some specific locations where they were known to occur. I wandered into one of these locations and was a bit skeptical. It was hard to find thick forest because of all the beetle-kill, but there was a lot of downed wood. However, the forest felt lifeless; beyond the chickadees and gray jays that buzzed around, I just couldn’t picture there being much in the way of wildlife. With larger critters, I can use topography and game trials to guide my set location, but I was at a loss trying to figure out how an arboreal weasel would move across the seemingly homogenous forest landscape. Since I couldn’t bring my camera to the marten, I decided to bring the marten to my camera; I used a skunk-based scent lure that’s popular with fur trappers. I have become habituated to the sharp odor of this lure, I might even say I enjoy its floral aroma and notes of mink and beaver. However, I would not recommend forgetting it in the trunk of your fiancee’s car when you go to pick her up at the Denver airport–it will not go unnoticed.
I went to check the cam a couple weeks later and was blown away. I had video of elk, fox, and the marten I was after. I figured I had it made, so I returned with my SLR rig and setup a full on studio portrait for the marten. That didn’t work: for the next 3 weeks or so nothing hit the set. My friend Maureen Ryan came to visit and I was sure I could show her a shot of a marten… nothing. I gave up and left with a humbling reminder of the trade-off between being a trapper and a photographer: every step you take to improve the photographic quality of a set decreases its chance of getting a visitor. It’s always tricky to gauge your subject and figure out how to optimally balance the trade-off. I’d clearly done a poor job in this instance.
Last week I got a sudden impulse to give the marten another shot. I buzzed out to my old set location just before dark and hiked in through an awful snowpack of breakable crust. I was discouraged to find several sets of human tracks; which made me worry about leaving my camera. Further, because there’s not much potential for winter recreation in this patch of forest, I figured the tracks were from fur trappers, which wouldn’t bode well for my chances of photographing a marten. As I followed the tracks I stumbled upon a huge pile of barrel-shaped turds. To my relief (and embarrassment as a tracker) I realized I was following a moose rather than a person. I made a quick set as it got dark; this time I placed my camera next to a small tree and strapped branches to it. Though I prefer the sharp fall-off of lights placed close to the subject, I pulled my flashes back and hid them behind trees or under a dusting of snow.
I came back a while later and followed fresh marten tracks to my set. Full of hope, I opened my camera box, hit the replay button, and checked out the last picture taken:
” That’s not a #$%(*$#*# marten!” were the next words that came out of my mouth.
Somehow my motion sensor was picking up my arm in test shots, but missing the marten. I moved the camera closer to the log, hoping that would fix the problem. I waited a bit and then returned on skis with my friend Bailey Russel and his adorable mutt Saga. It had snowed 8″ or so and my motion sensor and two of three flashes were buried. I opened the camera and saw another arm shot. I cursed, but Bailey pointed out that I was simply looking at photos from our arrival seconds before. I scrolled back a bit and found that we’d had a visitor come through just before the snow storm. I was thrilled to be looking at my first good portraits of a marten.
Just like the fisher I photographed in Oregon a couple weeks back; this marten couldn’t resist pouncing onto my camera. I missed the pounce encounter because my motion sensor was buried. It would have made a beautiful shot with the ambient light and falling snow.
He pops back out 30s into the clip.
I have big plans for this guy’s cousins. Headed to Montana today and I think I’ll set a trap for ermine. With a little luck I should have some shots of weasels from another continent within a few months… more to come.